Antigone is a given a violent urban aesthetic and taken from its Greek origins to consider contemporary gang culture. Having toured nationally last year, Antigone arrives at Theatre Royal Stratford East with Roy Williams’s reputation for innovative contemporary play writing. His research into gang and youth culture has informed everything in the production from the concrete and neon-lit set, to its gangster idioms. Even the names have been given a modern kick: Creo is Creon and Tig is Antigone.
The scripting is clever. Sean Sagar’s portrayal of one of the sentries in particular has an expanded role from the original, providing more comic relief. In fact, his entertaining delivery carries the production. But the real sense of tragic inevitability crucial to the play was never achieved. Without it, the play remained uncompelling and its conclusion lacked catharsis.
Antigone has always divided critics: structurally and traditionally speaking is it Antigone’s tragedy or Creon’s? Whose is the real fall from grace? Who makes the tragic mistake? These questions remain elusive – perhaps too academic to impact on our audience experience.
Unfortunately, Savannah Gordon-Liburd, who played Tig, failed to establish real sympathy – particularly in her opening scene with Esme (Frieda Thiel). The confrontation between the two sisters is our first chance to encounter Tig’s values – her desperate commitment to her brother’s honour and her proud dedication to her cause in the face of Creo’s jurisdiction. Esme, supposedly the righteous elder sister, advises Tig to stick to gang hierarchy and her uncle’s law. But Thiel’s voice lacked the strength to make it anything more than a one-sided conflict.
The technical aspects of the production, aside from an underdeveloped and unemotive musical score, were superb. The ‘gods’ of the original were redeployed as the CCTV surveillance cameras watching over the production in sinister proximity. This gave contemporary nuance to a play which circulates around the symbol of sight.
In a scene near the end, when Antigone has been buried in the quarry, we witness her distressed monologue to the ‘gods’; the surveillance cameras and police that rule officially over Thebes. The CCTV camera was unfortunately positioned below her, so that the live projection on the back wall was often focused on her bosom. That aside, the scene was the first to gather real sentiment in the face of the protagonist’s death.
Tig’s relationship with the smart and sensitive Eamon (Gamba Cole) also lacked the passion required for the pivotal role he plays in their mutual downfall. As Creo’s son, Eamon is Tig’s sole defender – that is until the spiritual ‘prophet’ Tiresias warns Creo to backtrack. The production works into the original a coming-of-age story, with both of his parents jibing and teasing his failure to sleep with Tig. When he and Tig finally do, it is shown euphmestically – the couple don’t even kiss at this point.
Ultimately, it felt like an experimental RADA production rather than a professionally articulated play.
Antigone is playing at Theatre Royal Stratford East until 14 March. For more information and tickets, see the Theatre Royal Stratford East website.